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Tuesday, June 18, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Risking Secret Agent’s Life Will Cost the DEA

WASHINGTON (CN) - Sending an undercover agent with a blown cover to Colombia to woo a major drug trafficker will cost the U.S. government $1.14 million, a federal judge ruled.

Masked men kidnapped the agent - codenamed the Princess -- less than a month after she arrived in August 1995. They held her for three months and the stress from her captivity, in which she was threatened with death and told family members had been executed, caused the onset of her multiple sclerosis.

"What went through my mind, I couldn't see how I was going to get out of this," the Princess testified, as transcribed in a Sept. 26 ruling from the U.S. Court of Federal Claims.

Judge Mary Williams blamed the Princess' multiple sclerosis, a debilitating nerve disease that affects the brain's ability to communicate with the nervous system, on the Drug Enforcement Administration's decision to send her to Colombia, and the kidnapping that followed.

The Princess began working for the agency as a confidential informant in 1991. She was sent her to Europe, Central America and South America, though many of her operations were in Colombia where she posed as a money launderer.

Agent Joseph Salvemini, the head of the Southeast Florida task force created to focus on top-tier narcotics cases, testified that the Princess was concerned for her safety early on.

He said the Princess asked him to move her family - her brother, his wife and their two children - to the United States from Colombia. Eventually, the Princess became so ingrained in Colombian drug-trafficking organizations that a DEA memo described her as "known to all." That memo said exposing the Princess' identity would place her and her family "in a position of grave danger."

The Princess received death threats in 1994 and, in early 1995, the DEA "thwarted an assassination attempt" against her, according to the ruling. Williams said her cover was completely blown in 1995 when an assistant U.S. attorney in Chicago revealed Princess' role as an informant to a suspect the Princess had lured to the U.S. to be arrested.

That prosecutor's revelation prompted a DEA official to complain in a letter to Salvemini that "this type of careless disregard for the safety and security of our informant should not be tolerated," according to the ruling.

Salvemini nevertheless sent the Princess back to Colombia to connect with money launderers and to bolster her cover.

Less than three weeks later, masked men hijacked the Princess' taxi, forced her into the trunk of another car and drove her to a remote location where they locked her in a small room with a dirt floor and a bed made of straw.

She would remain there for three months. Her captors initially restrained her with a noose around her neck that attached to loops around her wrists; if the Princess moved her hands too far away from her body, the noose would tighten and choke her.

It was during her captivity that her legs and feet began to hurt.

"The first thing I felt was like an octopus in my stomach," the Princess testified, according to the ruling. "Then, the first time they took me to take a shower, I fell down and I say, why am I falling down."

William Sheremata, a doctor in neurology at the University of Miami and one of the Princess' expert witnesses, marked this as the onset of her multiple sclerosis.

The disease prevented the Princess from escaping through a hole in the ceiling.

"I grabbed the wood by the hands, and I tried to (lift) my right leg, and there was no way," she said. "I mean, my leg went up to a little bit, and I remember I used to be a horse rider. I used to jump, so I said how come my leg doesn't work."

The DEA paid a $350,000 ransom to release the Princess. Upon her return, the Princess found she could not walk or sleep well. Doctors diagnosed her with multiple sclerosis in late 1995.

Experts testified that the stress of her captivity caused her multiple sclerosis. The government disagreed, pointing to problems the Princess had with her ex-husband and the discovery that her business partner was involved in money laundering.

But Sheremata said: "Well, she was in fact kidnapped and threatened with execution. That must surely be the largest amount of stress a person can undergo."

Judge Williams found that the government might not have been able to predict the Princess' multiple sclerosis, or even her kidnapping, but that there was enough evidence to show Princess was in danger. The DEA must pay for the Princess' medical treatment for the rest of her life, which the court found to cost $1.14 million.

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